Equal parts radical social experiment, day at the park and celebration of all things local, Open Streets Asheville is a newcomer to Asheville’s busy street-festival scene. On Sunday, Sept. 18, the city will open a grid of downtown streets for “car-free exploration of downtown shops and cafes, fitness and fun,” according to event coordinator Danise Hauser.
The Open Streets movement originated in Bogota, Colombia, in the 1970s, and gained traction in North America in the 1990s. Since then, there have been more than 100 different Open Streets events throughout the United States and Canada. Hauser says she finds it surprising, and a bit counterintuitive, that it took so long for Asheville to host such an event. She gives Terri March, health improvement specialist at MAHEC, much of the credit for getting the concept off the ground. After March and Hauser’s husband, Tony, attended the N.C. Bike Summit in Charlotte last year, where they heard livable cities advocate Gil Penalosa speak, they decided the time had come to bring Open Streets to Asheville.
The notion encountered some initial pushback from locals who worried that Open Streets would be a repeat of Bele Chere, Hauser reports. But, she continues, the differences couldn’t be starker. Unlike the discontinued Bele Chere, Open Streets Asheville will allow no outside vendors. Only businesses with stores or outlets on the Open Streets route will be allowed to make sales in the festival area. While Bele Chere was a three-day event staged at the height of summer, Open Streets is only four hours long, and it is intentionally scheduled during the lull between the summer tourism and fall leaf-looking seasons. The festival was planned, Hauser explains, to give local merchants every reason to feel appreciated and to stay open for business.
March assembled a planning committee, coordinated sponsors to fund a budget (which she says is a small fraction of the cost of Bele Chere) and recruited business owners and other organizations to participate. Since then, retailers, museums, nonprofits and city and county government have expressed interest and enthusiasm for the event.
One such business owner, Thomas Wright of Battery Park Book Exchange, appreciates how different Open Streets is from what Asheville and other cities have done in the past. “You don’t really need to put on sideshows to get people to come to downtown Asheville,” Wright says emphatically, noting that Asheville’s shopping and dining opportunities are some of the best in the nation. Unlike other festivals, which bring in outside vendors that compete with existing businesses, and contribute nothing to the local tax base, he continues, Open Streets will promote, celebrate and offer an opportunity to show gratitude to the local people, businesses and organizations that help make Asheville what it is. When city planners consider what sort of permits to grant and events to host, he says, they should ask themselves: “Is this serving downtown?” If the answer to that question is yes, and if the planners value retaining local brick-and-mortar businesses, Wright concludes, “Then they need to get out of the way.”
Heidi Swann, owner of aSHEville Museum, likes Open Streets’ alcohol-free approach and that it promotes the idea that streets can, should and will be used for pedestrian traffic. Swann worries that, as Asheville continues to grow more popular as a tourist destination, it is losing some of its inherent charm. “This event is not only family-friendly,” says Swann, “but it’s also a great way to create stronger community, and maintain that local, small-town feel.” This sentiment dovetails with some of the goals and benefits that Danise Hauser envisions for Open Streets. She says she feels that getting away from the frenetic energy that dominates streets with vehicular traffic will be a huge paradigm shift in the way that the community views downtown Asheville.
Not everyone is excited about closing the streets to motorized vehicles. “Virtually every event that closes the street kills our business for that day,” says Mark Chester, owner of Fired Up! Creative Lounge on Wall Street. His major complaint is that “some of the events they had on our street in years past were not as well-thought-out about how they would affect business.” Worse, he continues, some of the events that mandated street closures were forced on business owners, giving them little voice in the planning process. He worries about the long-term viability of his business if such street closures become a regular, or even permanent, fixture in the downtown area. “We want to cooperate and help Asheville,” says Chester, “but we also want it to be fair.”
One municipal official who’s gone through the process of planning an Open Streets event is Galen Poythress, recreation supervisor for the town of Carrboro. “Make sure all the stakeholders in the community are aware of what is happening and when, especially business owners,” he advises. Carrboro’s first Open Streets event took place in 2013. It was successful enough that the Carrboro Board of Aldermen approved its continuation, and Open Streets is now an annual happening.
To foster the sort of clear communication that Poythress recommends, Asheville recently created a new downtown development specialist position. Tasked with serving as a liaison between city departments and downtown stakeholders, Dana Frankel, an Asheville native, was hired in May to fill the position. Asked about the pros and cons of the Open Streets event, Frankel says, “Closures can mean different things to different businesses,” echoing Chester’s remarks. “This first year is going to be a great opportunity to see how an event of this type can work,” she says. “Then there will be some time for collaboration and feedback from the businesses to help with planning for next year.”
“Streets are our largest public spaces,” Hauser says, adding that there is much potential for changing the way we view and use streets and how we interact when we occupy them. While she’s not anti-car, Hauser says she believes our understanding of streets as public spaces should incorporate the concept of “complete streets,” a term used by urban planners, traffic engineers and advocates of alternative transportation. Asheville’s recently completed transportation plan, called Asheville in Motion, incorporates complete streets philosophies in its planning framework.
According to Smart Growth America, a national advocacy organization, “Complete streets are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities.” Median islands, roundabouts, dedicated bike and bus lanes, sidewalks, curb extensions and safe crossing opportunities are some of the tools employed in the design of complete streets. The concept attempts to level the playing field a bit, with the idea that a more democratic urban planning strategy is better for the community because it serves the needs of more than just vehicular traffic.
“It’s where we see the future of transportation,” says Hauser, noting fossil fuels’ negative impacts on the environment and the ability of multimodal transportation solutions to serve different demographics. Also, streets without cars, she adds, even for an afternoon, become entirely different spaces. That new perspective can change the way people think about their community and public spaces, potentially leading to more permanent changes that can improve a community’s quality of life.
Open Streets Asheville will offer many opportunities for community interaction. Some of the scheduled activities include yoga, dance, gymnastics and martial arts; massages, performance art and science experiments; booths and displays on Asheville’s greenways and local Special Olympics; urban plant identification and journaling workshops; bicycle safety instruction; a rest station for nursing mothers and more. Several businesses along the route will be offering discounts and promotions. Businesses and organizations that aren’t on the route, but still want to participate, are encouraged to host interactive street activities.
Organizers ask that those attending leave pets at home. What you should bring, they say, is anything you would take to a day at the park — Big Wheels, strollers, bicycles, roller skates and helmets — and even more: a sense of fun and adventure, an open mind and a willingness to meet new friends, play in the streets and think about your community in a new way.